With 2019 marking the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement, the first public act of resistance against Japanese Imperialism in Korea, it is only fit to review Tuition, filmed during the colonial period.
It was only recently that this film saw the light. Although released in 1940, it was discovered in the China Film Archive in 2014 and handed over to the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) the same year. Directed by Choi In-Gyu and Bang Han-Joon, it is said to have had ‘unprecedent popularity’ during the period.
With the start of the film, we are introduced to fourth-grade student Yeong-dal, who is studying Geography in the 1940s. Although the film is set in the city of Suwon in Korea, nothing in this classroom signifies this except the Korean map drawn on the black board. The teacher and students speak Japanese, the Korean map is accompanied by an equally big Japanese one, and all classroom notices are in Japanese text. Through these subtle, almost natural details we are able to take a glimpse into the forceful Japanese education system during the colonial period.
When Yeong-dal comes home from school, his sick grandmother welcomes him. Their home is small, run-down, with little to be impressed by. However, Yeong-dal seems to be content with his current situation greeting his grandmother with an innocent smile. Living humble, poverty ridden lives was a given in Korea during the time the film is set, as there was a shortage of resources – the little they had was taken away to fuel the Japanese and their army. Yeong-dal asks his grandmother if his parents, whom are working in the city, have sent a letter yet. His grandmother shakes her head. In an attempt to cheer Yeong-dal up, she presents him with a pair of tattered shoes she found whilst rummaging in the trash. Yeong-dal’s face instantly brightens up when trying the shoes on. The dirty pair of shoes act as a metaphor for the poverty and instability experienced by Koreans in their everyday lives during the 40s. These shoes contrast strictly with the new pair his parents bring him at the end of the film.
With no message and allowance sent by his parents, Yeong-dal is left with a shortage of money unable to pay his tuition. Although the film ends with Yeong-dal receiving money from his aunt in Pyeong-taek, his friends at school attempt to help him by pitching in money and by stealing from their own homes. This embodies Korean ‘Jeong’ or affection that is still present in Korean culture today. Even his Japanese teacher presents Yeong-dal with his salary to fund his education.
The Japanese teacher, being depicted as a fatherly figure to Yeong-dal, masks the reality of the colonial period; the film MAL-MO-E: The Secret Mission (2019), about a secret Korean language society during the 1940s, portrays this best. Japanese teachers in this recent film are depicted as merciless devils. In reality, teachers would often abuse their students, beating them regularly and punishing them if they spoke Korean. The warm hearted, open-armed teacher in Tuition is, unfortunately, a fantasy – too good to be true.
Although the cinematography and storyline are simplistic, Tuition fulfills its task of depicting everyday life under colonial rule in a positive light. It acts as a propaganda film perpetuating Japanese superiority and generosity. However, Choi and Bang do a splendid job of showcasing old Korean scenery and it was exciting to see how much the country has urbanised since then.
Limited release on February 26, 2019 in BFI Southbank, but Tuition can be accessed through YouTube.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor